DAKAR: Senegalese lawmakers on Monday got physical as they debated an unprecedented move to delay this month’s presidential election, which also sparked clashes outside parliament and prompted international concern.
The mood in the parliament chamber was close to boiling point by early afternoon, with some deputies shoving and pushing one another, leading to a temporary recess.
Outside, security forces earlier used tear gas to disperse small groups of opposition protesters, with demonstrators chanting “Macky Sall dictator,” referring to the country’s president.
The atmosphere in Senegal — often viewed as a bastion of stability in coup-hit West Africa — has been tense since Saturday when Sall announced a delay to the February 25 vote, just hours before campaigning was officially set to begin.
“Let’s not be an assembly of shame. Let’s make sure that when we leave here we can look at our children with pride and say that we were the last wall, the last bulwark,” said opposition MP Abass Fall during the debate.
Lawmakers are debating a proposal for a delay of six months or up to a year, until February 2025, according to the text distributed at the meeting.
Adopted a day earlier by a preparatory committee, the text is supported by MPs from Sall’s party. But it needs the support of three-fifths of the 165 deputies to pass.
“President Macky Sall said he would serve two terms. He has kept his word,” said another MP Moussa Diakhate, chairman of the pro-government law committee.
Violence has previously broken out in Senegal over fears Sall would try to extend his tenure beyond the end of his second term, and he has previously insisted he would not.
The vote was expected later in the day on Monday.
The sporadic clashes outside parliament were a rare sight in the normally calm area of downtown Dakar, where police and security forces backed up by heavy vehicles were mobilized to protect parliament.
Demonstrator Malick Diouf, 37, said he had no preferred candidate and did not even have a voting card, but felt it crucial to come and protest.
“The main thing for me is to say ‘no’ to this political agenda, this coup de force to try to stay in power,” he told AFP.
Opposition leaders have denounced the proposed delay as a “constitutional coup” and an assault on democracy.
Violent street protests rocked the capital Dakar on Sunday, during which two opposition candidates, including former prime minister Aminata Toure, were arrested and later released.
The government early on Monday suspended mobile Internet access, citing the dissemination of “hateful and subversive messages” on social media.
It was a repeat of a move last June, which saw mobile data restricted amid high tensions in the country.
The measure has become a common response to curb mobilization and communication via social networks.
Regardless of the outcome of the vote, the situation is unprecedented in Senegal.
The country has never experienced a coup since gaining independence from France in 1960, making it a rare outlier in a volatile region.
The proposed delay has sparked growing international concern, with the United States, European Union and France all appealing for the election to be rescheduled as soon as possible.
The chairman of the African Union commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat also urged Senegal to resolve its “political dispute through consultation, understanding and dialogue.”
Human Rights Watch warned that Senegal risked losing its democratic credentials.
“Senegal has long been considered a beacon of democracy in the region. This is now at risk,” it said in a statement.
“Authorities need to act to prevent violence, rein in abusive security forces, and end their assault on opposition and media. They should respect freedom of speech, expression, and assembly, and restore Internet, putting Senegal back on its democratic course.”
The crisis has led to fears of the kind of violent unrest that broke out in March 2021 and June 2023, which resulted in dozens of deaths and hundreds of arrests.
Tensions soared over speculation that Sall was considering running for a third term, until he eventually confirmed last July that he would not stand again.
Despite outrage on social media at the weekend, anger over the delay of the presidential vote did not spill into the streets in large numbers.
The opposition suspects the postponement is part of a plan by the presidential camp to avoid defeat, or even to extend Sall’s term in office, despite him saying on Saturday he would not stand for re-election.
Sall has designated Prime Minister Amadou Ba from his party as his would-be successor.
However, with the party split over his candidacy, he faced possible defeat at the ballot box.
Sall on Saturday said that he delayed the vote because of a dispute between the National Assembly and the Constitutional Council over the rejection of candidates.